Sirte, Libya

On a windswept dune east of this city’s port, a young Libyan fighter with binoculars crouches between clumps of reeds, calling out corrections for mortar fire against an Islamic State sniper ensconced in a hotel 2,000 feet away. A booming retort is followed seconds later by a thud.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sector governance, and U.S. policy, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.
More >

“No, more to the left!” he shouts to his comrades, who relay this back to the mortar crew.

A faint whirring fills the air overhead. A pair of fighters in a nearby truck pilot a drone — a four-rotor, off-the-shelf contraption. They study the camera image on an iPad screen, trying and failing to discern the outline of a gunman.

This is an imprecise and improvised war, waged mostly by young men with no military training, but plenty of combat experience. It is also an increasingly deadly one against a determined and wily foe. Just two days before my visit, the Islamic State tried to punch through the Libyan lines here, failing but killing two.

The Islamic State first announced its presence in Libya in the eastern town of Derna in October 2014. A mix of local jihadi groups and returnees from the Syria war formed an affiliate and soon established a base in Sirte and its surrounding hamlets, also setting up cells in the capital of Tripoli and in the western town of Sabratha. The Islamic State’s central leadership in Iraq and Syria bolstered this growth by dispatching advisors and redirecting flows of foreign volunteers to Libya. But starting in the middle of last year, the Libyan affiliate began losing ground to local armed groups in Derna, Benghazi, and Sabratha. Sirte, however, remained untouched—until now.

That changed in early May of this year, when a coalition of armed groups affiliated with Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) launched a campaign to wrest the coastal city from the terrorist group. Dubbed Al-Bunyan al-Marsus, or “The Solid Structure,” the operation began after the Islamic State overran a checkpoint west of Sirte guarded by fighters from the nearby city of Misrata. The Misratans quickly mobilized “out of self-defense,” one municipal leader told me, and sought endorsement from the Tripoli-based government. Misrata, a commercial and military powerhouse, also faced an economic imperative to confront the jihadi group: By seizing the checkpoint, the Islamic State had cut off the port city’s commerce lifeline to the south.

The operation remains dominated by Misratan armed groups, though fighters from Tripoli and other western towns, Sirte, and eastern cities like Benghazi have participated. According to one commander, roughly 20 percent are officers and soldiers with military experience under the previous regime. The rest are civilians, and many bear scars from fighting in the 2011 revolution.

In recent weeks, the operation pushed back Islamic State fighters in Sirte from the west, south, and east. It seized strategic sites on the city’s outskirts, like a power plant and an airfield, and rolled through residential and business districts. Off the coast, meanwhile, a small flotilla of tugboats and fishing craft equipped with Grad rockets and anti-aircraft guns fires on the Islamic State’s positions and cuts off any escape.

But these gains have met with ferocious counterattacks, often at night. In one day alone, 36 GNA-affiliated fighters died. In total, 227 fighters have lost their lives since the war began.

The Islamic State inflicted early casualties through the use of suicide bombers disguised as fleeing families, who drove toward checkpoints outside the city in cars laden with mattresses and suitcases. As fighters advanced into Sirte, they encountered improvised explosive devices, mines, and booby traps, many of them diabolically hard to detect.

Along the front lines of bullet-pocked concrete homes, earthen berms, and gardens girded by cinderblock walls, sniper fire is an ever-present threat. On a rooftop overlooking a field where Islamic State positions lie several hundred feet away, a pair of young fighters seated by a pigeon coop keep a careful watch. “They can even hit this,” one of them says, tossing up a small pebble. “That’s how good they are.”

Young fighters and their leaders want more international support. They acknowledge that a team of British and American special operations soldiers in Misrata gives them drone imagery on the location of Islamic State artillery batteries. And a commander confirmed media accounts that a British soldier recently destroyed steel-plated suicide vehicles with an antitank missile. Still, they said, more could be done. On nearly every front, fighters tell me they are desperate for Kevlar helmets and bulletproof vests, as well as binoculars and night vision goggles. Medical care is another dire need.

Evidence of the Islamic State’s draconian rule is everywhere in Sirte. Driving into the city from the west, I pass Zafran roundabout, a grassy traffic circle where the Islamic State had erected scaffolding for public crucifixions. In a scene that is continually replayed on Misratan TV, gleeful GNA fighters tore the metal structure down. Elsewhere, shuttered shops selling wrought-iron doors, cabinets, and pharmaceuticals bear a stenciled license signaling the business has paid the Islamic State’s tax.

My guide, a former civil engineer named Muhammad al-Dharrat who commands the western front, hands me a small pamphlet—an Islamic State driving log for military vehicles, with columns for gas expenditures and daily usage. The booklet warns that discrepancies will result in the application of sharia punishment. “Organizationally, they are sophisticated,” Dharrat tells me. “Individually as fighters, they are dumb.”

In a eucalyptus grove, we find the corpse of one of them, felled in battle the day before. He was a balding, middle-aged man in an calf-length gown and leather sandals, carrying a small bag of dates to break the Ramadan fast and wearing a plastic Casio watch. A bullet had entered his left eye; another shattered his elbow. “Tunisian or Egyptian,” a Misratan fighter speculated.

Dharrat thinks 200 to 500 Islamic State fighters are still holed up in the city’s center. He flicks on the truck’s radio to the Islamic State’s station, which has resurfaced on another FM frequency after going briefly off air.

At an intersection south of Sirte, we have a chance meeting with Muhammad al-Hassan, a boyish-looking commander attired, like many in this loosely cobbled force, in a camouflage T-shirt and flip-flops. Dharrat gets out of the truck and confers about battle plans with Hassan, who draws a map of downtown Sirte in the sand. Hassan knows these sprawling streets better than most of his fellow fighters; his Misratan force, the 166th Brigade, patrolled the city and clashed with the Islamic State in early 2015 before withdrawing. He is now confident that victory is not far off, that the final phase of the campaign is imminent.

But what victory will look like — what will come after the Islamic State — remains unclear.

“This is the thing that occupies every fighter and commander,” a leading Misratan notable tells me. He believes that a liberated Sirte should fall under a regional military administration for a limited time, which would oversee security, reconstruction, and the return of displaced families. It is also necessary, he emphasizes, to stop the re-emergence of extremist ideology in the town. I ask him who would lead a military administration over Sirte. Some commanders at the front had insisted to me it should be a Misratan.

“Someone, an officer, who is acceptable to Sirte’s people, to the east, and to the west,” he says.

“Does such a person exist in Libya?” I ask.

“We will find him,” he responds.

With Libya fractured into rival governments in the east and west, that’s easier said than done. The question of who controls Sirte is a polarizing one: It is strategically located in the so-called “oil crescent,” where most of the country’s petroleum resources are found. An eastern political faction allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar rejects the GNA and sees the assault on Sirte as a power grab by Misrata. Haftar, a former officer from the era of Muammar al-Qaddafi who defected and resided in the United States for 20 years, leads a fractured coalition drawn from tribes, neighborhood paramilitaries, and military units in another campaign against the Islamic State and Islamist armed groups in Benghazi. But his aircraft have bombed an eastern force, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which supports the GNA and has attacked the Islamic State east of Sirte in coordination with the Misrata-led offensive. Although Haftar recently made overtures to the Misratans, deep suspicions remain.

Some of these suspicions have roots in Misrata’s troubled involvement in Sirte. After the 2011 revolution, Misratan fighters exacted a harsh revenge against the city, which was Qaddafi’s hometown and his staunchest base of support. Unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods and tribes victimized by the Misratans welcomed the Islamic State as a sort of protective shield. And Misrata also played a role in the Islamic State’s birth: Misratan Salafists helped form the Sirte branch of the militia Ansar al-Sharia, whose members later pledged allegiance to the so-called caliphate.

These divisions make it difficult for the unity government to convert the Islamic State’s defeat into legitimacy—an important goal for Washington and its European allies. Even without the Islamic State, the GNA faces enormous challenges, including forging a coherent army and police from disparate armed groups beholden to towns and tribes, fixing the country’s collapsing economy, and bolstering municipal governance.

For now, the fighting continues. At sunset, a cadre of weary artillerymen encamped in a villa settle in for a meal of fasuliya, a white bean stew, to break the Ramadan fast. In a nearby field, howitzers point skyward to the north amid garbage and scattered shells. The men recline on mattresses in the warm air, drink tea, and puff on cigarettes. A sleepless night stretches ahead, punctured by the pounding of guns that deliver fire into the darkness.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy.